Steve Jobs and why technology doesn’t matter

There’s been an awful lot written about Steve Jobs in the wake of the Apple (s aapl) co-founder’s death, and that has only increased in the wake of the new biography from Walter Isaacson, which a number of media outlets have been running excerpts from. In addition to Jobs’ opinion about topics like Google (s goog), the book also includes some comments from famous tech-industry players about Jobs, and one of them is from Microsoft (s msft) Co-Founder Bill Gates — a man who was Apple’s nemesis in many ways. Gates says he liked Jobs, but that the Apple CEO “never really understood much about technology.” The Microsoft billionaire no doubt saw that as a put-down, but looked at another way, it was one of Jobs’ biggest strengths.

Although the two men apparently gained a grudging respect for each other, they couldn’t really be any more different, both as people and as CEOs and founders of technology companies. Jobs, who famously spent time in India and was a practising Buddhist, apparently told Isaacson that Gates would have been a more interesting person “if he had dropped acid or gone off to an ashram when he was younger,” while Gates told the author that Jobs was “fundamentally odd” and “weirdly flawed as a human being.” The Microsoft founder also admitted that Jobs had an “amazing instinct for what works” — while Jobs said that Gates was “basically unimaginative and has never invented anything [but] just shamelessly ripped off other people’s ideas.”

The part about ripping off other people’s ideas could also be applied to Apple, of course, at least in its early days, since much of the graphical user interface that made the company’s computers so recognizable and gained Apple designer Jef Raskin so much fame — the mouse, the desktop metaphor, the icons, file folders and pull-down menus — were based on ideas originally developed by Xerox at its Palo Alto Research Center division.

Technology is the least important thing about Apple products

But while Gates saying that Jobs “never really understood much about technology” was probably intended as a criticism, the truth is that in most cases the technology is the least important thing about Apple’s products, and probably wouldn’t appear anywhere on the list of the main reasons why devices like the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad are so appealing. Someone like Gates, who spent his youth programming and was involved in much of the code behind things like Windows, would like to believe that superior technology wins — but for most users of both software and hardware, design is what wins.

Jobs was a famous admirer of Dieter Rams, a designer for Braun who had a number of mottos and aphorisms about design — one of which was that “good design will make a product understandable.” That applies to a lot of Apple’s most famous products, which were so painstakingly designed to be usable, even when (like the original iPod shuffle) they didn’t even have a screen to tell you what was going on inside them. A video of a one-year-old child using an iPad and then trying to use the same gestures on a magazine (embedded below) went viral recently, and Daniel Donahoo at Wired pointed out that in addition to the message that much traditional media is “broken” from a usability point of view, it also reinforced just how instinctive much of Apple’s design and usability is.

When people talk about Apple’s design principles and philosophy, they often mention the unrelenting focus on simplicity (based in part on Rams’ motto: “Less, but better”). Jobs said that among the most important decisions in product design were what not to include and that this process involved “saying no to 1,000 things.” That’s a very difficult principle to adhere to at the best of times — but it’s especially hard if you are a technology geek and obsessed with all the ways in which your product is going to beat your competitors because of the cool features it has. That’s what causes the classic “feature creep” phenomenon, which often occurs when professional engineers get hold of a device.

It’s not about the features — it’s about usability

In a nutshell, that’s what accounts for much of the difference between Microsoft and Apple, or between Apple and just about everyone else — not the technology but the usability. Think about the early days of the MP3 player, before the iPod came out: I had an early device made by Archos that was a brilliant piece of technology, a laptop hard drive with a shell that turned it into a music player, and it held a then-staggering 6 gigabytes of music. It was also an ugly piece of crap in a lot of ways — it was huge and bulky and unfriendly to use, but I used it anyway. Until I saw an iPod.

Lots of people focus on how Apple’s design was similar to high-end furniture or other non-technological products, with its white or black exterior and clean lines, but the real killer appeal of the iPod or the iPhone or the iPad was how easy they are to use, and how integral that ease of use and design is to the product itself. Microsoft made plenty of MP3 players and tablets and the Zune and so on, many of which were fine from a technology point of view. But did anyone want to rush out and buy them? No. That’s not to say Apple hasn’t produced some great technology, from FireWire to the oleophobic coating on the iPhone screen — but the technology isn’t the most important part of those devices.

I’m sure when Bill Gates looks at the iPad or the iPhone, he thinks about all the features it doesn’t have, or all the things that it can’t do. But no one else thinks about those things — all they are interested in is what they can do, and how much fun it is doing them, and how appealing those devices are. And that is one of Steve Jobs’ biggest gifts to the world of technology and design.